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The George Cross recipient who saved hundreds of lives by staying aboard a burning locomotive

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Heroic train driver Wallace ‘Wally’ Oakes made the selfless decision to remain onboard a burning steam locomotive in 1965, saving hundreds of lives with his actions.

The Firth of Forth was pulling a passenger train from Euston-Carlisle and had set off from Crewe station when a severe blowback occurred and filled the cabin with smoke and flames.

Despite suffering severe burns and with the engine ablaze, Wallace stayed on the footplate to bring the train to a halt and prevent a serious accident from happening.

His bravery and quick thinking saved the lives of hundreds of passenger on the West Coast Mainline, but he suffered dearly as a result and later died after receiving 80 per cent burns.

Wallace’s fireman Gwilym Roberts was also badly injured but survived to tell the tale. His first-hand account of Wallace’s heroism led to the train driver to be posthumously awarded the George Cross – the highest civilian honour. He is believed to be one of only six railway workers to have received the honour.

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Photo: NRM.
Wallace Oakes’ George Cross medal. Photo: NRM.

Wallace’s medal – and his tale – is part of a new  exhibition at the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York.

Titled Highlights, the exhibition brings together a number of significant items from NRM’s collection that are rarely seen by visitors – including Wallace’s medal which was recently bought for £60,000 at auction.

Head curator Andrew McLean said: “Although the 260 locomotives and vehicles are the most well-known part of our collection, they make up less than 0.5 per cent of the total, which includes everything from paintings, ceramics, signage and signal boxes to coins, furniture, photographs and rare books.

“This exhibition is intended to give people the opportunity to see a different side of the collection and to use paintings and objects to tell new stories about why the railways matter to all of us. Wallace Oakes’s medal for example remembers an act of great sacrifice that saved many lives, but it also tells us just how dangerous working on the railways was in the age of steam.”

The exhibition, which as been made possible thanks to £30,000 from both the Friends of NRM and the Science Museum Group, is situated on a balcony overlooking the museum’s Great Hall and includes paintings, medals, handcrafted models and other historically significant artefacts.

Highlights is now open during the National Railway Museum’s hours of 10am to 5pm and is free to enter.

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